Covering almost two million square kilometres, the Arabian Desert is vast, but also full of history, culture and wildlife. Here’s how we encountered all of these things in a Platinum Heritage Desert Safari in Dubai.
When you’re in Dubai, surrounded by the modernity of its buildings and the sea breeze coming off the Persian Gulf, it’s easy to forget that at the edge of the city limits is the world’s second largest sand desert.
The Arabian Desert fills most of the Arabian Peninsula.
To give you some scale, if you could move the Arabian Desert over Australia, all the states and territories on the east coast would be under sand. As would all of the three west coast states of the USA as well as Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Utah and most of Montana if you moved the Arabian Desert there.
You could fit the UK into it about seven and a half times.
Check out our video of our time with Platinum Heritage in the Arabian Desert:
The southern third of the Arabian Desert—ominously known as Rub’ al Khali or The Empty Quarter—spans 650,000km², an area bigger than France.
And it’s only a short drive from Dubai’s lofty towers, speeding freeways and plush beach resorts to the sandy brink of this part of the desert.
Platinum Desert Safari with Platinum Heritage
It’s a smooth, relaxing drive into the desert and as we go, Austin briefs us on the afternoon’s programme.
We also pick dinner options for our six-course feast later, starting with a choice of soups, then salads, starters, main courses (one of which we’re amused to see is an Australian beef fillet steak), desserts and drinks.
Platinum Heritage Desert Safari Part I: the muster
Austin pulls up at the very brink of the desert amidst the huge fleet of Platinum Heritage cars. The lines of iconic vintage Land Rovers—the vehicle of choice for Hollywood explorers—is impressive and we’re almost wishing we were in one.
But as Austin explains, although they’re fun, these older vehicles don’t have the grunt to get as far into the desert as we can go in the latest high-spec Range Rover we arrived in. Plus, air conditioning!
After we have our traditional head scarfs—the women’s version is called a sheila and the men’s is a ghutra—we hop into our car and Austin whisks us through the security gates into the Empty Quarter.
Platinum Heritage Desert Safari Part II: exploring the desert
The part of Rub’ al Khali we’re going into is in fact a nature sanctuary.
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) is the UAE’s first national park, spanning 225km²–about 5% of Dubai’s total land area.
You have to have a special permit to enter, and there’s no ‘dune bashing’ allowed here. You’re not even allowed out of your vehicle unless your guide says it’s ok. Most of the DDCR hasn’t had direct human contact since 1999.
These rules have protected the dunes and their delicate ecosystems, bringing back the surprisingly large variety of native animals and plants back to the area.
Contrary to popular understanding, there’s plenty of life in the desert. Hosts of reptiles, spiders and insects live under the sand or are nocturnal. Plants like UAE’s national tree, the ghat tree, thrive here and herds of the Arabian oryx roam the dunes.
Threatened with extinction, the Arabian oryx were saved by a breeding programme Sheikh Zayed launched in the 1960s. The oryx population in the UAE to now the largest in the world with over 4,000 living here.
As we drive through the endless beauty of the desert, we also come to watering holes and a manmade lake that supports marine and birdlife. Austin also shows us some traditional Bedouin herbal remedies from the native plants growing nearby.
Platinum Heritage Desert Safari Part III: refreshments and falconry
Back at base, we’re welcomed with a glass of delicious sparkling wine (non-alcoholic of course!) and some canapés as we relax under the shade of a giant canopy.
And while we’re relaxing, Waseem, the Platinum Heritage’s falconer, comes to show us one of the favourite sports of the Arab world. With him is Nova the peregrine falcon.
Falconry is a tradition that dates back to when Bedouins, the nomadic people of the Arabian Desert, used birds of prey to hunt for them. These days it’s more about entertainment, and seeing the world’s fastest creature hunt Waseem’s lure is amazing to watch.
The canapés are excellent: a trio of goat’s cheese with a praline of cashews, brazil nuts, cranberries and honey, smoked salmon and caviar on grilled eggplant, and rolled-up grilled zucchini stuffed with feta and roasted cherry tomatoes.
Platinum Heritage Desert Safari Part IV: camel rides
After the falconry display, we’re taken to the newly arrived camel train, where we climb aboard our ‘ships of the desert’ for a ride to dinner.
The camels are clearly well looked after and are friendly enough to have a selfie or two with!
I’d love to say riding a camel is a pleasant experience, but I think I’d have preferred the Range Rover. It’s very bumpy and lurchy, taking photos and video from up there is almost impossible, and when the ride comes to an end, the camel sits down almost catapulting you across the desert!
Nevertheless, they carry us safely across the dunes to the royal oasis—a beautiful camp owned by Emirati royalty.
We’re welcomed with a traditional cup of Arabic coffee and fresh dates. The deep aroma of burning oud, a tree bark that weight for weight is more valuable than gold, washes over us.
Platinum Heritage Desert Safari Part V: dinner and a show
Set amongst the dunes, this oasis with its pond surrounded by curved cabanas that protect our dining tables brings home the level of luxury of this experience.
As the last rich gold light of the setting sun leaves the edges of the dunes behind us with its line of a filagree, the flames of the torches set around the water flicker and dance.
Under our cabana sat at our private table, we’re brought cocktails from the bar (also non-alcoholic) as the evening’s feast begins.
The food is incredible. All coming from the little kitchen set back next to the bar, every item of this six-dish meal is cooked, plated and presented to perfection.
Halfway through dinner, Waseem comes back with Nova the falcon and talks to us for a while. It’s too dark to fly her again, but not with Waseem’s other bird: an imposing pharaoh eagle owl.
Christina and I take it in turns to quite literally take up the gauntlet, and the owl flies effortlessly and majestically to and from our arms to its perch.
At the end of the meal, we all gather in the lounge for the evening’s entertainment.
Inside the hoop set up in front of the pond, a dancing acrobat folds her body into impossible shapes, and then she’s joined by a fire-twirling demon, who sheds sparks and flames in arks that mirror the circle of the dancer’s sanctuary.
Platinum Heritage Desert Safari Part VI: the ride home
Tired but entirely sated, we climb back into the Range Rover where Austin presents us with a beautiful (and incredibly generous) gift box of camel milk chocolates, a jar of sidr honey, famed for its medicinal and regenerative properties, a huge vial of saffron from the region and a pot of the highly valued Arabic oud.
Our drive back to our hotel in the city is peaceful though fun as we chat about the day’s activities with Austin.
Definitely an experience we’ll always remember.